A man sits on a bench in a New York City subway station and reflects on "quiet quitting." He says in the TikTok that "your worth as a person is not defined by your labor."
Many of us have recently become familiar with the phrase "quiet quitting" — though not necessarily with the history of easing up on the pedal at work.
Quiet quitting isn't exactly new; it's been around, under different names, for generations. Gen Xers might have called it "slacking off" or "coasting," while millennials might have said it was "having boundaries."
But today's phenomenon feels somehow different. It comes amid a pandemic, social unrest, and economic turmoil. It also comes amid record quits levels as workers demand more from their jobs — money, flexibility, autonomy, or the ability to work remotely.
It's not just Gen Z that's weighing in. Arianna Huffington wrote that "quiet quitting" is a term "we need to quit on" because "pushing ourselves beyond the bare minimum is how we grow, evolve and expand our possibilities."
Insider gathered three generations of workplace reporters and editors to unpack quiet quitting and offer insights on why it's such a polarizing topic.
Below is a conversation with Ebony Flake, Rebecca Knight, and Tim Paradis, Gen Xers; Shana Lebowitz, a millennial; and Rachel DuRose, a Gen Zer. It's been edited for clarity and brevity.
Tim Paradis: Quiet quitting means different things to different people, but it's not new, right?
Rebecca Knight: I think that we've called it in the past slacking off or coasting, or drawing boundaries around how you want to live your life, but it's not necessarily new. I think that quiet quitting is a great tagline. It's alliterative; it's cute. And I understand that it is a TikTok trend, but I don't necessarily think the idea of quiet quitting is new.
I was looking at some data from a Gallup survey, and 60% of employees report being emotionally detached from work; 19% report being miserable. Only 33% say that they're engaged at work. So if we think that the other 60% are emotionally detached — maybe the emotional detachment is the quiet quitting of "I'm not letting my job take over my brain space."
Shana Lebowitz: I suspect that the types of work and types of workers that get a lot of attention are probably extreme outliers. Some people are part of what has been labeled "hustle culture," and they're really invested in their work, and it's their whole life. And then you've got the people who are totally checked out, and they're on Reddit explaining how they do their job in 20 minutes and automate the other seven hours and 40 minutes of the day. I wonder if emotionally detached people are just like everybody else.
This isn't just a Gen Z thing
Rachel DuRose: I think there's a perception that because "quiet quitting" is a new term, Gen Z is spearheading it. But I had to tell my friends what quiet quitting was — they had never heard of it. So it's definitely not a concept that was created by Gen Z.
In fact, I don't think Gen Z wants to quiet quit. I think most of Gen Z wants to work in a place that shares their values or where they feel like they're doing good. And the times where they quiet quit is when they're somewhere where they can't do that or they're working at a place that doesn't share their values.
Think of it this way: People who go into industries like journalism, or something that you need to have a bit of a passion for and you're not in it for the money — they are less likely to quiet quit. Many of my friends who are in positions that they had to get really specialized training for and aren't getting paid a ton of money for, they're not quiet quitting. They're fresh out of college, and they worked far too hard to get this job that they wanted.
Passionate workers can be exploited
Knight: When you are in a profession that could be described as having a higher calling and doing it to have a great impact and to better society, there is a phenomenon called the exploitation of the passionate worker. It's that companies can use the fact that we aren't doing it for the money to take advantage of us and to give us extra work, expect us to work extra hours, and put in more than is in our job description. Because you're not doing it for the money — you're doing it for this higher purpose. So maybe there's also a bit of a rebellion against that.
Lebowitz: I've never had another job outside of journalism, but my sense is that it seems like it would be a little hard to check out in our field. I suspect that it might be easier to quiet quit or check out in other jobs. I wonder what the patterns across industries and demographics look like.
Ebony Flake: I think there may be a DEI component to this. There's been a mass exodus of Black people from the workforce or from corporate America, just because of work culture. I think that's what's driving the Great Resignation: toxic work culture, and people get to define what that means to them. But I would imagine that if people of color are actually quitting, there's probably some quiet quitting that has been happening before that decision is made.
Paradis: That brings up the point that only certain workers can do this and get away with it. It might be hard for a restaurant worker to pull this off. And in addition to quiet quitting, I saw the trending phrase "silly little jobs," where people disparage their work if they don't believe it has much meaning. Why are these terms such a hot thing now?
DuRose: I think from a Gen Z perspective, you're not going to go on TikTok and post a rant about how much you hate your job and your manager, because you know that'll get you fired. So I think instead Gen Z creates posts saying "I have to go to my silly little job" and uses certain words and phrases to describe it where they're being honest but in some ways they're being slightly reserved or trying to make it funny so it doesn't come off as serious.
I think there's also been a change in tone. Gen Z isn't necessarily coming up with these ideas on their own. We're hearing it from other generations, from our older coworkers, from our teachers, saying, "Have you ever thought about the fact that working 80 hours a week and being burnt out and hating your life isn't like a good thing?" That's what I mean by Gen Z isn't necessarily creating the concepts.
It's possible that the reason they're behind these TikTok trends is they're willing to speak about it in the workplace, which obviously in the past I think was taboo. And I think it's starting to become less taboo to say "I'm burnt out" or "I'm unhappy."
The pandemic pushed more workers to speak up
Knight: I think particularly because of the pandemic so many people are burned out, and we never got a break, and we never got that reward after the pandemic. So quiet quitting to a lot of people might seem like the only option. And Gen Z is getting the credit for it — they get on social media, and they have made quiet quitting look fun.
And I think in terms of the silly little jobs, it's a way to minimize work and the role that work ought to play in our lives, to make us reflect on that.
DuRose: I think the pandemic had a hand in that. In some ways it does feel like a silly little job, because you just experienced something so impactful that entering the workforce, for a lot of my friends, wasn't such a big deal. But when I was a freshman in college and my friends were graduating and getting full-time jobs, there was always a little bit of whiplash of them trying to adjust and be an adult. But of all the things that have given me whiplash in the past three years, starting a job isn't one of them.
Lebowitz: That's very interesting. My whole life has changed pre- versus post-pandemic. Two and a half years ago I was living in Manhattan, taking the subway every day to the office, and I didn't have a family. Now I work from my bedroom, and my kid is downstairs, and I'm afraid to go into the office because someone might cough on me and give me COVID. It's just, like, a whole different world. I still love and enjoy my job, but my relationship to work is very different. I imagine that's relatable to some other people.
Flake: Life transitions change your perspective and can make you reprioritize. For me, during the pandemic, I was looking for more security, and I returned to HR, which I had left for about seven years. But I came back to it because I wanted better benefits and a stable paycheck. So it's not necessarily to do with quiet quitting, but it does speak to the fact that people need to do what's right for them at certain times of their lives. For me, and for a lot of my friends who are entrepreneurs, we all got jobs the second we could when things started looking chaotic. It became less appealing to be out there following your dreams and building your business, and it became way more appealing to be in a place that felt stable.
How we'll know whether this is real
Paradis: What will you all be looking for to get a sense of where this conversation is going?
Knight: If it's truly a trend, we will start to see it in the numbers — because there is a lot of research that shows disengaged employees are less productive, and then that will show up in a company's bottom line.
DuRose: A big factor is whether people can get away with this. There's so many claims out there that everyone's quiet quitting, but one of the reasons that I'm not sold on that is that I think if people really were quiet quitting at that number, companies would start reacting. They'll start letting people go or find ways to motivate them. And I don't think it would be company-culture happy hour. I don't think it would be that nice and friendly. I think it would be way more of a hard action.
It will be interesting to see how companies react — and whether or not companies react will be a huge indicator of how prolific quiet quitting actually is.